Regular blog reader Joel Dietz offers his thoughts, in this guest post, on teaching Chinese thought—mainly as viewed from the “consumer” or student end of the interaction. In the comments, please respond to Joel.
Despite the recent interest in China from an economic perspective, relatively few colleges offer courses which attempt to offer an “Introduction to Chinese Thought” or, perhaps more ambitiously, an “Introduction to Chinese Philosophy.” Indeed, in a recent course providing an introduction to Chinese classical thought at the University of Pennsylvania, it was unclear what if any, Ivy League institutions, besides the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University offer such a course (presumably others do, and it would be delightful to know the details). As an undergraduate at Brown studying with Henry Rosemont and Harold Roth, graduate student at Penn, and reviewer of other related syllabi, especially those for a comparative philosophy class offered by Chris Fraser at Hong Kong University, I make some preliminary pedagogical observations extrapolated from my experience, including related benefits and challenges.
The first challenge is “selling” the course to the presumably undergraduate students who have many other courses that they could be taking, and which must be undertaken by the wary professor with both convincing rationale and fitting rhetoric. As for rationale, I believe it is highly useful that undergraduates, especially those with a specific interest in philosophy or any sort of theory, be acquainted with some of the formative thought in a non-Western philosophical tradition. This suggestion derives from what may be a controversial supposition that Western philosophy, particularly modern forms derived from an analytical, quantitative, or pragmatic traditions, do not offer a comprehensive picture of the world and related phenomena. Indeed, this is something of a classicist position. Venerable ancient texts that have long been perceived as valuable are worth reading simply for this reason, that the collective opinion of generations of highly educated people in a given civilization is the best and perhaps only way to understand the mindset (or, more accurately, Weltanschauung) produced by that civilization.
I believe this rationale can be presented to virtually all students with some success, given that virtually every student engaged in any field in the modern world — if they deal with people at all — will be forced to deal with Chinese people. A productive marketing slogan could be, consequently, that the course will help students understand how and why Chinese (and others influenced by the Confucian tradition) think the way that they do – since, undoubtedly, even with the cultural revolution, the formative elements of the Confucian tradition continue to have a strong influence. This is doubly true for students of Chinese ancestry who may be unaware of their own cultural traditions. Admittedly, this does mean tweaking the course somewhat to use some class time to examine contemporary examples of how various elements articulated in the Analects, etc. remain reified in Chinese culture, but I believe this is a small price to pay for having more students who are more engaged and who come out of the course with an appreciation of the continued relevance of ancient thought.
This, however, makes the endeavor primarily a work of cultural history and not entirely an introduction to “philosophy,” since the one may end up focusing on social behaviors and texts rather than ideas themselves. This problem, which is hardly unique to the subfield of Chinese philosophy, is undoubtedly more pronounced here, since, despite a few opaque references in the Dao De Jing, metaphysical thought in structured form was not present until Han Dynasty “Dark Learning,” and even here frequently made subject to a dogmatic Confucianism. Thinkers like Wang Bi, if extraordinarily difficult in the original, are (in the opinion of this author) even more incomprehensible in translation. Further problematizing things, is that, the entire project of philosophizing appears to be strongly disparaged by one of the canonical “philosophical” texts, the Zhuangzi.
An alternative rationale would be the emergence of natural philosophy and, at a later period, science in China, which would have immediate relevance to the Western enlightenment era. Unfortunately, virtually every academic to touch the subject disagrees substantively about the reasons for the lack of emergence of a robust scientific tradition in China, and this seems a topic that cannot be successfully addressed in an introductory class. At the same time fairly obvious analogues to the numerological, astrological, cosmological, and other forms of “magical” thinking do appear in both the Presocratics and, more obviously, in Neoplatonic systems. While none of these are typically covered in survey courses of Western philosophy, and only peripherally in works on the evolution of cosmological systems, they nonetheless await a longer analysis that may prove interesting fodder for thoughtful undergraduates.
This problem, even if it may be dodged by people already in the field, effectively damns any serious recognition of “Chinese philosophy” within academic philosophical circles defined in traditional ways (the rationale for these traditional delineations will not be discussed, except to say that there is one) – leaving those in the subfield talking to each other unless they attempt to find a comparative approach (at times derived from some sort of nascent cognitive science or neurobiology). This leaves would be pedagogues with presenting thought with important social implications or focusing on interesting but obscure things like Mohist logic, which were not continued and have little or no historical relevance. Given these foci, it is no surprise that both courses I took focused on a near identical set of texts: the Analects, Dao De Jing, Zhuangzi, Mozi, Mencius, Xunzi, Hanfeizi, and Sunzi Bingfa.
Translations chosen were also similar: Rosemont/Ames and Lau for the Analects (both bilingual); Lau and Hendricks for the Dao De Jing; Watson for Mozi, Hanfeizi, and Xunzi; Mair for the Zhuangzi; Griffith for the Sunzi Bingfa. On these texts, each Analects translation has its perks. Despite its age and the occasional error, Legge frequently remains closest to the spirit of the original by his choice of religiously-tinted language, while Rosemont/Ames, despite general accuracy, sometimes over philosophizes. Slingerland provides more commentary than may be warranted for an undergraduate course and which may unduly influence the first reading of the text, while Lau frequently over interprets and there are numerous instances of poor word choice. Consequently, I would be inclined to choose Rosemont/Ames or Slingerland, depending on the amount of time spent on the text (Slingerland if more, Rosemont/Ames if less). I don’t favor any particular DDJ translation, though Lau is acceptable he needs to be read carefully against the original, and despite a plethora of available translations, perspicacious introductions are few. Watson is more or less a given for the HFZ, Mozi and Xunzi. Mair presents a colorful and eminently readable Zhuangzi that is true to the literary form of the original, if to be read against Graham and Watson on difficult passages (of which there are no few). As for Sunzi Bingfa, the Griffith translation contains numerous errors that are absent in more recent translations (I prefer Mair to Denma, but have never carefully read either of them against Ames or Sawyer).
Curiously although not surprisingly, texts which did not contain any obvious philosophizing were generally neglected. This was most prominent with the Book of Changes, the Book of Odes, and Classic of Rites (禮記), all of which are extremely important. Despite strengths in other areas, I personally believe this method of teaching the Confucian tradition renders it somewhat sterile. Confucius would probably have much preferred that students a couple thousand years continue memorizing the odes than carefully reading attributed sayings that he apparently made very little effort to put down into writing (besides hiding them in his house, of course). The challenge of presenting other texts is enhanced by the fact that one would have to provide a greater degree of context around them, and I believe that this is something that can be enhanced by a greater degree of scholarly collaboration. If relevant quotations from the above works (with or without a fresh translation) were compiled in such a way that they could be used in as a classroom text, contemporary students would be able to better appreciate the wide range of material drawn on by the Confucian tradition.
As for the pedagogical method, one class contained a fairly typical lecture and response, where perhaps the majority of each class was taken up with a presentation of relevant themes from the assigned reading, whereas the other was dominated by questions that the students came up with while reading the texts, with occasional interventions involving careful reading of specific passages and attention to relevant themes. I do not particularly favor one over the other, so long as the students are engaged by the material enough to come up with good questions. Two particularly useful teaching tools were used. The first of these was the attention to specific themes and ideas spanning multiple texts – for instance evolving conceptions of “nature” 性 and debates over their usage in Mencius and Xunzi. It is particularly helpful when attention is drawn to the theme in the earlier text and mentioned for the second, so that the student can be attentive to the reading in the second text. A second was the use of interesting teaching aids, for example the memorization and recitation of a favorite passage from the Analects. I find such aids help students engage with the material, and strongly favor tools of these sort, even the classroom practice of (speculatively) reconstructed breathing practices as likely advocated for by the authors of the Dao De Jing or engaging in some of the stretching postures found in the Mawangdui 馬王堆 silk scroll. Another useful technique not employed in either class but employed by Chris Fraser is the creation of handouts with short quotations of other classical and philosophical texts from other traditions. This would better indicate points of contrast and similarity between Chinese and other pre-modern philosophical traditions on issues such a transcendent order to the universe, the relation of ritual to life, or the interplay between the rule of law and the family.
Though both of these classes appear to have been successful in imparting a greater degree of knowledge (and hopefully also wisdom), I think a challenge remains in convincing both academic institutions and students of the relevance and, in fact, necessity, of engaging seriously with early thought. The most promising prospects for deeper institutional engagement appear to be twofold. First, is the presence of instructive materials at a secondary or collegiate level that can serve to better acquaint students with other traditions, a lack of awareness which has reached a deplorable level. These are not necessarily limited to presentations of classical thought. Indeed, institutions, especially those with a religious flavor, would likely utilize good curriculum that spans memorization of traditional poems and phrases from the Three Character Classic. Culture here can be transmitted simply as culture, although there may also be moral implications. Second, is the emergence of highly effective healing modalities based on traditional Chinese and Indian medical traditions, including a growing number of clinical studies which indicate the efficacy of meditation and yoga for dealing with psychological and chronic conditions that could previously be treated only by long-term drugs or surgery – if at all. Philosophy stands to benefit as it provides an exposition of the natural philosophy from which these modalities emerged (e.g. early theories and debates concerning the nature of Qi).
The real needs in both of these areas can be a channel for academics to engage with not just the research interests of their colleagues in the academy, but also the needs of their students who may be pursuing or interested in other non-academic fields. Indeed, if they were to do so, it would be consistent with the orientation of the Chinese civilization, which at its peak presented a wealth of artistic and other achievements in a context comparatively free of the religious dogmatism that has haunted the West. Thankfully, the scientific orientation of Western civilization, even if it does not present a complete picture of reality (let alone human anatomy), nonetheless is able ascertain the efficacy of various techniques not originating within our traditionally defined borders. This same spirit of openness and earnest evaluation is equally appropriate in a pedagogical context. In my opinion, the ultimate test of our teaching is whether or not both we and our students put it into practice, both by means of greater understanding of other traditions and, optimally, by actually following our chosen Way 道 according to the best of our understanding and ability.